If Catholics and other Christians wish to repent and ask forgiveness for persecuting
Jews, they should first understand what, in Judaism, the process entails.
RABBI DAVID R. BLUMENTHAL is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory
University, Atlanta. He is the author of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest
(Westminster/John Knox), God at the Center (Jason Aronson), and The Banality of
Good and Evil: A Social, Psychological, and Ethical Reflection (Georgetown University
During the spring of 1996, with the support of the American Jewish Committee, I was
privileged to be in Rome to teach Jewish Studies at the Gregorian Pontifical University
(See "Letter from Rome," Cross Currents, Fall 1996). This paper is part
of a continuing conversation with colleagues and friends in Rome as well as elsewhere in
the Catholic world.
In the spirit of ongoing Catholic-Jewish dialogue, I offer the following reflections on
the Jewish teaching on repentance and forgiveness, which is an old tradition, reaching
back thousands of years and drawing on the wisdom of untold numbers of sages. As a further
part of the dialogue, I include here the Hebrew terms, accented for proper pronunciation,
together with a short bibliography.
What Judaism Does Not Teach
The spiritual task of interfaith dialogue requires each party to understand what the
other teaches and what the other does not teach because, in reaching out to the other, we
tend to assimilate what we hear to what we already know. It seems, therefore, prudent to
note those conceptualities which Judaism does not embrace in the hope that
Catholics will, then, better be able to set aside ideas already familiar and reach out to
encompass ideas that are not already-known.
Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as
part of the process of sin and repentance. There is no designated authority to whom one
can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God. Nor does Judaism
recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance.
Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages,
largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic
theology and practice. Further, there is no rabbinic authority who can prescribe penances,
either of a therapeutic or a ritual kind; rather, spiritual discipline in the presence of
sin is undertaken voluntarily, by individuals so inclined, sometimes after consultation
with a rabbi.
Judaism does not recognize absolution as part of the process of sin and
repentance. There is no designated authority who can dispense forgiveness of sins after
confession and penance; rather, sins between persons require the asking and granting of
forgiveness by the parties concerned while sins between persons and God require the asking
of forgiveness by the penitent and the granting of forgiveness only by God. Finally,
Judaism does not recognize reconciliation (the whole-hearted yielding of all inner
negative feeling) as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance. Although
reconciliation is known and even desirable, rabbinic Judaism realizes that there are other
modes of rapprochement that are fully adequate and, perhaps, more realistic.
Teshuvá is the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and
forgiveness. The tradition is not of one mind on the steps one must take to repent of
one's sins. However, almost all agree that repentance requires five elements: recognition
of one's sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét'), remorse (charatá), desisting
from sin (azivát ha-chét'), restitution where possible (peira'ón), and
"Recognition of one's sins as sins" is an act of one's intelligence and moral
conscience. It involves knowing that certain actions are sinful, recognizing such actions
in oneself as more than just lapses of praxis, and analyzing one's motives for sin as
deeply as one can. For example, stealing from someone must be seen not only as a crime but
also as a sin against another human and a violation of God's demands of us within the
covenant. It also involves realizing that such acts are part of deeper patterns of
relatedness and that they are motivated by some of the most profound and darkest elements
in our being.
"Remorse" is a feeling. It is composed of feelings of regret, of failure to
maintain one's moral standards. It may also encompass feelings of being lost or trapped,
of anguish, and perhaps of despair at our own sinfulness, as well as a feeling of being
alienated from God and from our own deepest spiritual roots, of having abandoned our own
"Desisting from sin" is neither a moral-intellectual analysis nor a feeling;
it is an action. It is a ceasing from sin, a desisting from the patterns of sinful action
to which we have become addicted. Desisting from sin involves actually stopping the sinful
action, consciously repressing thoughts and fantasies about the sinful activity, and
making a firm commitment never to commit the sinful act again.
"Restitution" is the act of making good, as best one can, for any damage
done. If one has stolen, one must return the object or pay compensation. If one has
damaged another's reputation, one must attempt to correct the injury to the
"Confession" has two forms: ritual and personal. Ritual confession requires
recitation of the liturgies of confession at their proper moments in the prayer life of
the community. Personal confession requires individual confession before God as needed or
inserting one's personal confession into the liturgy at designated moments. The more
specific the personal confession, the better. One who follows these steps to teshuva is
called a "penitent" (chozér be-teshuvá).
The tradition is quite clear, however, that recognition of sin, remorse, restitution,
and confession, if they are done without desisting from sin, do not constitute teshuva.
Without ceasing one's sinful activity, one has only arrived at the "preliminaries to
teshuva" (hirhuréi teshuvá). Actual desisting from sin is what counts. Thus,
if one desists from sinful action because one has been frightened into it, that is still
teshuva and the person is considered a penitent. For example, if a person ceases to gamble
compulsively because someone threatens to beat him severely the next time he does it, such
a person is considered a penitent. Or, if a person ceases to steal because he has been
told he will be sent to jail the next time it happens, such a person is considered a
penitent. Furthermore, if a person becomes convinced that he or she will be punished in
the life-after-death and ceases sinful action on that account, this person too is
considered a penitent, though this motivation for desisting is higher than the previous
ones because it is a function of a larger religious worldview which considers the
wrongdoing as actual sin.
Teshuva which is rooted in fear of humans or God is called "repentance rooted in
fear" (teshuvá mi-yir'á) and, while not the highest form of teshuva, it is
the core thereof. Reform of one's character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution,
and confession, when combined with the ceasing of sinful action, is called
"repentance rooted in love" (teshuvá mei-ahavá). "Repentance
rooted in love" is desirable but, without cessation of sin, reform of one's character
is useless. Maimonides, the foremost halakhic (legal) and philosophic authority of
rabbinic Judaism, lists desisting from sin as the very first step to teshuva.
Rabbinic tradition teaches that all the steps to teshuva are necessary. Their
interrelationship is best described as a spiral which touches each of the five points, yet
advances with each turn. Thus, one may begin at any point -- with action, analysis,
remorse, restitution, or confession. However, as one repeats the steps of teshuva again
and again, one's analysis and remorse deepen, one's restitution and commitment-to-desist
become firmer, and one's confession becomes more profound. As one cycles through the five
phases of teshuva again and again, one's teshuva becomes more earnest, more serious. At
its height, one achieves "full teshuva" (teshuvá gemurá) which would
require full consciousness and action such that, given the same situation, one would
refrain from the sin for which one had repented. Sinfulness is a very deep dimension of
human existence and dealing with it calls upon all our spiritual, intellectual, emotional,
and moral resources -- even when we recognize that ceasing to sin is the base line of
Sin disrupts our lives on the human level; it distorts our relationships with other
persons, social institutions, and our selves. Sin also disrupts our spiritual lives; it
distorts our relationship with God and our deepest inner spiritual being. Because sin
alienates us from humanity and from God, there is more than one kind of forgiveness.
In a civil contract, one party incurs a debt to, or obligation toward, or claim against
another. In such a situation, the creditor can forgo the debt, waive the obligation, or
relinquish the claim. The creditor can do this for no reason at all, although the creditor
usually has some grounds for being willing to forgo the debt. Similarly in the matter of
sin. When one sins against another, one incurs an obligation to right the wrong one has
committed. This is a debt toward the offended party borne by the offender. The more
serious the wrong, the more serious the obligation to set it straight. In rabbinic
thought, only the offending party can set the wrong aright and only the offended party
can forgo the debt of the sin. This means that, if I offend someone, it is my
responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters aright and, conversely, if someone
has offended me, it is my responsibility to allow the offender to do teshuva, that is, to
correct the wrong done to me. Teshuva is part of the structure of God's creation; hence,
the sinner is obligated to do teshuva and the offended person is obligated to permit
teshuva by the offender.
The most basic kind of forgiveness is "forgoing the other's indebtedness" (mechilá).
If the offender has done teshuva, and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended
person should offer mechila; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the
offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation
of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the
offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechila is
like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt
The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to
offer mechila if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken
concrete steps to correct the wrong done. Maimonides is decisive on this subject:
"The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mechila, for this
is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material
claims and has] asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended
person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was
done, the offended person should offer the sinner mechila" (Mishne Torah,
"Hilchot Chovel u-Mazzik," 5:10). Mechila is, thus, an expectation of the
offended person but only if the sinner is actually repentant. For example, a woman who has
been battered by her husband, or abused by her father, is not obliged to grant such a
person mechila unless he has, first, desisted from all abusive activity; second, reformed
his character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession; and third,
actually asked for forgiveness several times. Only then, after ascertaining that he is
sincere in his repentance, would a woman in such a situation be morally bound, though not
legally obligated, to offer the offender mechila.
The principle that mechila ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish
"No" to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as
desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the
offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may
never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good
grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to
do so. This is the great Jewish "Yes" to the possibility of repentance for every
The second kind of forgiveness is "forgiveness" (selichá). It is an
act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving an
empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an
embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is
human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of
grace. A woman abused by a man may never reach this level of forgiveness; she is not
obliged, nor is it morally necessary for her, to do so.
The third kind of forgiveness is "atonement" (kappará) or
"purification" (tahorá). This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness.
It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is
only granted by God. No human can "atone" the sin of another; no human can
"purify" the spiritual pollution of another.
Sin and Forgiveness: Jews and the Catholic Church in Dialogue
Given the Jewish teaching on repentance and forgiveness, it is clear that Jews are
under a moral and halakhic expectation to hold open the possibility of mechila, of
forgoing the heavy indebtedness of the Catholic Church and Catholic community to the
Jewish people for the sins of murder, persecution, injurious teaching, and indifference.
Forgiveness, in the sense of relinquishing the obligation that sin creates (mechila), is
part of the structure of creation. It is a confident expectation from God, and it should
There are, however, two difficulties. First, Jewish teaching also makes clear that
there is no spiritual or halakhic mechanism in Judaism by which Jews can formally
"forgive" the Catholic Church, or the community of Catholics, for the centuries
of injurious teaching and persecution of Jews culminating in the Shoah. Corporate
forgiveness between communities, either in the form of mechila or in the form of selicha,
has no theological ground in rabbinic Judaism. Further, there is no designated halakhic,
or political, authority which could assume such a task. In theological terms, forgoing of
debt (mechila) and forgiveness rooted in empathy (selicha) are possible, though there is
no formal mechanism which could authorize this; atonement, purification, or ultimate
reconciliation (kappara) can come only from God.
Second, as noted, even mechila cannot be granted unless the offended party has sure
grounds to think that the offending party has done teshuva. In the context of
Jewish-Catholic dialogue, this would mean, first, desisting from the sin of persecuting
Jews, including desisting from teaching doctrines and supporting popular attitudes that
encourage, or even tolerate, the persecution of Jews; second, making appropriate
restitution where there are material claims that can be compensated; and, third, the
reform of character through intellectual-moral analysis, remorse, and confession. Reform
of character without desisting from sin, however, is not repentance, and all the words,
documents, and genuine expressions of contrition will avail naught without concrete
actions -- as would be the case between two Jews in a situation of prolonged sinful
conflict. The way the Church deals with terrorist incidents, antisemitism, Church files on
the period of the Shoah, Judaica deposited with various Church entities and not returned,
Catholic education about Jews and Judaism, the nature of Catholic mission, relations with
the State of Israel, relations with local Jewish communities everywhere, etc. are, thus,
the action-yardsticks by which Catholic teshuva is measured. Given forthright action and
enough time -- Catholic conflict with the Jews and Judaism is centuries old, not a product
only of this century -- a growing sense of mechila among Jews is possible, indeed a
legitimate moral expectation. Selicha, in the sense of forgiveness of the heart rooted in
empathy, however, would seem to be very premature.
Further, it seems clear that, although the Jewish people does not have a central
authority to speak for it, publicly acknowledged entities such as the State of Israel or
other world-wide Jewish bodies may enter understandings and negotiations with other
political and religious entities on behalf of the Jewish people to determine what actions
are to be taken to begin the process of righting long-standing wrongs, even though the
decisions of these bodies would not bind their constituents and vice versa. A public
engagement in this process by legitimate authorities, if pursued in good faith and
productive of appropriate acts, would generate a moral and social consensus rooted
in desisting from sin, restitution, and reform of character. This moral and social
consensus would, given the Jewish teaching on repentance and forgiveness, lead to a consensus
of mechila, perhaps of selicha which, in turn, would find some appropriate public
M. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Hilkhos Teshuva," trans. and comm.,
E. Touger (New York and Jerusalem, Moznaim Publishing: 1987). The text of Maimonides'
"Laws of Repentance" needs to be read with a commentary.
J. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, ed. P. Peli (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).
A. Steinsaltz, Teshuva (New York: Free Press, 1987).
Y. Abramowitz, Hechal ha-Teshuva (Hebrew), (Bnai Brak: Netsah Press, 5721).
Encyclopedia Judaica and Jewish Encyclopedia, "Repentance."
D. Blumenthal, review of S. Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, Jewish Social Studies
40, nos. 3-4 (1978): 330-32.